HC Deb 22 April 1991 vol 189 cc819-30

' .—(1) The Secretary of State may, after consultation with the Corporation, make regulations with respect to the action to be taken by the Corporation for alleviating cases of hardship suffered as a result of property being blighted by subsidence damage or the possibility of such damage.

(2) The action which may be required by the regulations is—

  1. (a) the purchase of any blighted property at a price equivalent to its unblighted value; or
  2. (b) the payment of an amount equivalent to the difference between the value of any such property and its unblighted value.

(3) Regulations under this section may make provision as to—

  1. (a) the making of claims under the regulations and the descriptions of persons who may make them;
  2. (b) the descriptions of property in respect of which such claims may be made and the circumstances in which such property is to be regarded as blighted for the purposes of the regulations;
  3. (c) the circumstances in which action is or is not required to be taken (including the circumstances in which a person is to be regarded as suffering hardship);
  4. (d) the determination of the value or unblighted value of any blighted property.

(4) In this section "unblighted value", in relation to any blighted property, means the value which it would have if it were not blighted.'.—[Mr. Heathcoat-Amory.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

With this, it will be convenient to consider amendment (a) to the amendment in subsection (2), at end insert— '(c) the right of owners who have received notices under Clause 44, subsections (4) and (6) to compel the Corporation to purchase blighted property.'.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

This is the first of a number of new clauses and amendments that have been tabled to meet Government commmitments made in Committee. New clause 1 deals with blight.

In order to prevent hardship, British Coal will consider buying houses damaged by subsidence, or in some cases houses that are in imminent danger of being so damaged. Over the past three years, British Coal has bought more than 80 houses, to avoid hardship being caused.

The 1984 report of the Waddilove committee considered British Coal's policy to be "wholly reasonable", and no evidence was presented in Committee to suggest that that conclusion no longer holds good. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that many hon. Members would prefer the arrangements to be placed on a statutory basis, and the new clause will enable the Secretary of State for Energy to make new regulations specifying actions to be taken by the corporation to alleviate hardship caused as a result of property being blighted by subsidence damage or the possibility of it.

In the avoidance of hardship section of the Brown Book, British Coal states that it will consider making payments to avoid hardship in a number of circumstances. The first is where the owner of a damaged house must sell if for a good reason—for example, because he has found work in another district—and the house cannot be sold at its former, undamaged value. The corporation will consider buying the house at its undamaged value or making up the difference between that and the sale price. In exceptional circumstances, the corporation will do the same if the house is not damaged, but there is a strong and imminent possibility that it will be damaged.

Those arrangements appear to work well and it is not the Government's intention to introduce regulations at this stage. If it becomes clear that those arrangements are not operating fairly, or do not go far enough in avoiding hardship, the Government will have the power to make regulations to improve matters.

I hope that new clause 1 meets with the approval of the House. I am aware that the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) has tabled an amendment, to which I shall respond if he has a chance to present his case.

Mr. Ted Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney)

I do not mean to be churlish when I say that, although I welcome the Minister's response to representations made from both sides of the Committee, new clause 1 falls short of our expectations. It is another example of Ministers seeking to introduce a "maybe" clause: an enabling measure that they might use, one day, to introduce regulations to alleviate the hardship suffered by householders whose homes are blighted.

A constant theme of debates in Committee was that a balance had to be struck between discretion and regulations of the kind proposed by the Minister and the belief of many of us that the Bill should establish rights. The Minister introduced the new clause in a downbeat way, when he could have said, "I am trying to break new ground." Instead, he told the House that the Government may introduce regulations at some time in the future that will take British Coal's present policies a bit further.

We pressed hard on Second Reading and in Committee for recognition of the blight caused by mining subsidence because we do not agree that British Coal should be in a position to be judge and jury in hardship cases and the only authority to exercise discretion. While no one wants to see the extensive acquisition of blighted properties, the fact that British Coal purchased only 80 homes over the past three years reveals the marginal way in which it exercises its discretionary power. It is disturbing to hear the Minister say that he thinks that British Coal is doing a good job in that respect.

I shall cite constituency cases that have come to my attention even since the Committee stage, which illustrates why new clause 1 should go further than it does. The Minister said that the Government have adopted the Brown Book's definition of hardship in relation to blight. In one case with which I am familiar, Mr. A found a purchaser for his property at an agreed price, but the announcement of subsidence in Edwardsville, in the vicinity of that property, caused the sale to be aborted.

Mr. A has spent 12 months trying to sell his property, even at a reduced price, as part of his divorce settlement, in order that his divorce proceedings may be finalised. Does the Minister consider that such a case constitutes a form of hardship and is one in which British Coal should exercise its discretionary purchasing powers? In fact, British Coal refused to do so.

The individual concerned is not a young man, but, whatever the age of the person concerned, if British Coal does not consider that case as one not involving hardship, what is its definition of hardship? The Minister gave as an example a person moving to find work in another district. That may soon be common in Edwardsville, in my constituency, because its deep navigation pit was closed on Good Friday, and a number of miners who worked there are thinking about going on the road to Selby Beach, to become mining gipsies once again.

There are a number of other examples of the sort that I have just given the Minister, where British Coal is exercising its discretion on hardship in a minimalist fashion.

The new clause talks of the circumstances in which action is or is not required to be taken (including the circumstances in which a person is to be regarded as suffering hardship)". Will the Minister tell us whether the case that I mentioned—the purchase of a blighted property to resolve divorce proceedings—constitutes a case of hardship which therefore should be subject to the blight provisions?

Mr. Alan Meale (Mansfield)

Will my hon. Friend also point out to the Minister that the new clause could be interpreted by British Coal as applying only to physical damage to a property? What about area blight because of mining subsidence? In some cases people cannot buy a house or raise the mortgage to buy one, because of blight caused by subsidence damage.

Mr. Rowlands

I agree with my hon. Friend about blight—it is not merely related to physical damage to a property or the imminence of such damage. Properties in the vicinity of subsidence are automatically blighted and are therefore difficult to sell. That is why I tabled my amendment to the new clause, because it tries to tackle some of the problems that my hon. Friend mentions.

My amendment seeks to do one thing that the new clause does not do—to establish a right for people whose property is blighted. What sort of right should we establish? I have reached what I thought was a reasonable compromise between the discretionary provision provided by the Minister and my belief that we should establish the principle of a right for householders to serve a blight notice. My compromise seeks to resolve the matters that my hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) mentioned.

My amendment seeks to tie blight provisions to the serving of notices under clause 44(4). I suggested it initially in Committee. I have mulled the matter over and believe that the case for such action is now even stronger. I do not go as far as to suggest that people have a right to serve blight notices on British Coal once any notice under clause 44 is served, although I think that there is a case for that. By nature, I am a moderate man, so my compromise amendment does not even go so far as to suggest that.

Once a notice is served under clause 44(1), there will be blight. As soon as an estate agent or a surveyor hears that there has been pushed through a door a notice stating that the property may one day be affected by subsidence, the property is blighted, but, as a moderate, I accept that we should not go as far as to enable people to exercise such a right in that situation. However, after people have received a notice under clause 44(4), people should have such a right. That subsection states that British Coal can serve a blight notice 12 months after the first notice and again 12 months after that if need be. It can continue to serve notices warning householders that there is a danger of subsidence to their property.

While the initial notice under clause 44 should perhaps not trigger off blight provisions, if British Coal reaffirms the threat of danger or the warning of damage to a property because of subsidence, as a notice under clause 44(4) would do, the householder should have a right to serve a blight notice.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

My hon. Friend served on the Standing Committee that considered the Bill and has great knowledge of the measure. Unfortunately, I was not privileged to be chosen to serve. Does he think that British Coal could use blight to force prices down it were compelled to purchase a property? Back in the 1950s and 1960s, councils bought houses for a pittance because they were in slum clearance areas. If British Coal were ruthless enough, it could put a blight notice on an area because it realised that it would have to pay, but it would make an offer at a rock-bottom price and the householder might not wish to sell. If my hon. Friend is not careful, his provision could work in two ways.

7.15 pm
Mr. Rowlands

I believe that planning and compensation legislation has changed considerably since the time of the example quoted by my hon. Friend. Whereas that was a danger once, I do not think that it is now. Indeed, even in the Minister's new clause, the discretionary power is for payment of an equivalent to the unblighted value of a property. We sorted out the matter in planning and compensation law some time ago. British Coal would not be able to get away with what my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) suggests, and I do not think that it is an objection to my amendment.

Two things should happen to the new clause. First, we should strengthen it, to establish a right rather than a discretionary power. The new clause allows British Coal to carry on as it has done before and that is not good enough, therefore we should establish a right. I offer a compromise version of that right by suggesting that if a notice is served time after time under clause 44 warning householders of the possibility of damage, even though it has not occurred, householders should have the right to expect British Coal to purchase the property if they want to move for a variety of good reasons. It should be a right and not a discretionary power as the new clause suggests.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)

New clause 1 is rather like clause 41—the arbitration clause. It gives the Minister and his successor the power at some later stage to introduce mandatory regulations. It is what some of my more meticulous friends might call the rule of the threat of law, and it is designed to concentrate the minds of institutions such as British Coal and to remind them that if they do not play ball with their voluntary codes, the Government will use the power that Parliament has given to it through measures like this.

I welcome the new clause but, like the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands), I think that it would be helpful if the Minister could spell out certain matters so that no one in British Coal can be in any doubt about precisely the range of possibilities that we wish to encompass within it.

Clearly, two kinds of blight are associated with coal mining subsidence. The first is very much of a temporary nature and is when a property is subject to subsidence, everyone in the area or on the estate suddenly goes into a panic, the price of the property falls through the floor but later the situation stabilises and after a few months property prices return to normal. The second type is more long-term and is the one with which we are all most concerned tonight, when there is a long-standing history of subsidence which is not constantly manifest at a high profile, but comes to the surface at irregular intervals. People who bought properties a few years previously when there was no general concern about subsidence in the area, suddenly find out about it and the price of their property depreciates.

Mr. Meale

Surely when there is subsidence and the prices of properties in an area are blighted, it does not right itself. We must establish protection for people within the law because those property values are not going up. In coal mining areas where subsidence has occurred, the properties are the lowest priced pro rata for their region of any properties in Britain. They are seriously affected. My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) is trying to get a right for home owners rather than a might.

The most disturbing facts about the new clause are that it not only provides for regulations "after consultation" with British Coal but that, in its introductory line, it only uses the word "may" rather than providing for a right.

Mr. Howarth

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but he and I would be naive if we were to assume that the word "consultation" in respect of negotiations that a Minister of the Crown might wish to have with an organisation such as British Coal implied the relationship that he suggests. If the Minister were to return to the House and seek approval for such regulations, it would be because the voluntary arrangements with British Coal had failed. In British Coal's case, it is far more likely that consultations would be more of a damage limitation exercise rather than a question of setting the terms. I suspect that the Minister would set the terms. Neither my hon. Friend the Minister nor his successor would address an issue such as this without their attention having been drawn to the great concerns expressed by the House at this time. Therefore, the regulations will be fairly stringent.

The hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney referred to a few cases where both he and I believe that it would be sensible for British Coal to agree to purchase a property. The Minister said that the owner would have to want to sell for good reason, and he referred, as an example, to someone who lost his job and also to a house that was in imminent danger of being damaged by subsidence. There have been a few cases in my constituency of people being unable to raise cash for business ventures because the value of their property has fallen; they have therefore been unable to raise cash from a lender. The traditional way in the United Kingdom of setting up a business or expanding it is, rightly or wrongly, to use one's residence as collateral. If the value of somebody's house falls, that person is unable to raise funds to expand the business or to start up in business. I hope that the Minister will spell out to British Coal that that is another case that it ought to bear in mind.

People may also want to move house because, due to their family having expanded, their existing house is too small. The fact that those cases have been spelt out on the Floor of the House might help British Coal to understand the range of cases that Parliament is considering and that it believes British Coal ought to take into account when assessing entitlement to blight compensation.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

The Bill aims to protect people who are likely to be affected either by subsidence or by the threat of subsidence. The amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) is the absolute minimum that we require; had I drafted it, I should have included the words "any order under clause 44." If the coal board issues a notice that shows that it may damage somebody's property, that is blight. Blight relates not only to subsidence but also to the threat of subsidence.

The Bill provides that, if somebody's house, through no fault of that person, is to be undermined by British Coal, for its own good reasons, that person's future is under the control of others. British Coal has the discretion to buy the house, or to remedy the defect, or to make a payment in lieu. British Coal also has the right to decide whether somebody has good reason to want to sell his or her property. Apart from the value of somebody's house being undermined, that person is also on probation to British Coal. Nobody will object to the new clause, if that is the best thing on offer, but all that the Minister says is that he will take a reserve discretion.

We must consider that from the point of view of somone whose house is affected. Many of these people are elderly and do not know where to turn for help. This is a complicated Bill, a point to which we shall return when we consider new clause 2 which would establish advice centres. People may suddenly have a notice pushed throught their door saying that their house may be affected. That is blight. The news spreads immediately and affects the whole area. Then they find that British Coal will have power over their lives: it can do one of three things and can then decide whether people have good reason for leaving houses that it intends to blight. The Minister says, "If it all goes wrong, we might introduce regulations which might do this or that." What use is that to people who are under pressure?

Members of Parliament have cases put to them every day. That happened to me only a few days ago. What are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to write to the Minister, who will then tell us that he is waiting for British Coal to act? If one writes again to the Minister, he will reply, "Until British Coal has acted, I can't decide whether to lay a regulation." People will not know what to do. Therefore, my hon. Friend's amendment is eminently reasonable, as is evidenced by the fact that it has received limited support from Conservative Members who represent people who have been affected. That inclines me to the view that in the other place this wrong should be put right. If British Coal wanted to damage somebody's house, that person would then have the right to say to it, "If you want to damage my house, you must buy it." A proper balance of rights and responsibilities should be enshrined in the Bill.

I hope that the Minister will take seriously this exceptionally modest amendment. It makes sense to anyone who has any experience, either personally or through representations, of the problems created by mining subsidence.

Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse (Pontefract and Castleford)

I support the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands). We have to ascertain what is meant by blight. That is difficult. If, however, British Coal's evidence to the Select Committee on Energy on coal mining subsidence is anything to go by, it will never agree to new clause 1. On previous occasions I have drawn the attention of the House to a startling example—the small village of Darrington, which contains the highest-priced houses in my constituency. They cost about £150,000 which, in my area, is a very high price. The Prince of Wales colliery at Pontefract is taking coal from under that village.

In recent weeks Yorkshire Television has highlighted that problem, and also the fact that the ancestors of the president of the National Union of Mineworkers are buried in Darrington church. British Coal will have to carry out major restoration work if that church is to be saved. It has already purchased a few badly damaged properties in the village.

I have dealt with the case of a purchase from a man who has a job in Lancashire. He was a miner who was made redundant. Houses in the village which are not damaged are blighted because they cannot be sold at the market value that would have applied prior to mining subsidence. Who will decide which property will be damaged and which will not? There is not much consolation for a person whose house has not been damaged but which still loses its market value.

7.30 pm

If new clause 1 means what it says and covers all subsidence and all blight, the village of Darrington is blighted. One can imagine what will happen. The people of the village have a right to protection, but new clause 1 will not provide it. It contains too many mays and mights. Will it ever mean anything? I do not want to be churlish about the new clause because any improvement on previous regulations is welcome. I am not saying that there has not been an honest endeavour to assist, but without my hon. Friend's amendment new clause 1 will not solve the problem. I hope that the Minister and his colleagues will take note of the amendment and will acknowledge that, without it, new clause 1 means nothing.

Mr. Eric Insley (Barnsley, Central)

My hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) mentioned Darrington, but he did not deal specifically with the church there. It may assist all hon. Members to hear what will happen to the church, which is to have its stained glass windows removed and the floor removed to a depth of about 7 ft so that it can withstand the mining operations underneath it. If my hon. Friend were to refer to what will happen to the church, it would give some idea of what would happen to the £150,000 houses in the village.

Mr. Lofthouse

I thought that I had mentioned the church, which is to have extensive repairs. It will be a major exercise, and I do not think that it is yet known whether it can be saved. It is a mediaeval church and a listed building, and the coal board has great problems with it. One can imagine the type of problems caused by the nature of such a church and the fact that the property around it is also blighted. Professional people and others coming into the area are keen to live there, but there is evidence that the price of houses has recently taken a dive. It is a major problem, and I repeat that new clause 1 will not solve it without the amendment, which will go some way to identifying blight.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

When I saw the new clause on the amendment paper, I was pleased that the Government had recognised the problems of blight for areas suffering from coal mining subsidence. On Second Reading and in Committee, I and my hon. Friends gave many examples of properties that had suffered blight and of communities where the sale of property virtually ceases because of subsidence damage in the area. Therefore, I was more than surprised to hear the Minister say that he felt that British Coal, in its Brown Book, was dealing adequately with the question of hardship and was doing a good job. I hope that I am not misquoting him in saying that. If what he said were so, we would not have argued in Committee for an explanation of exactly what blight meant with regard to coal mining subsidence.

I and my hon. Friends hope that new clause 1 is a recognition of the fact that subsidence blights not only the damaged property but neighbouring property. That idea was mentioned in Committee and the Minister went away to consider it. The amendment deals with blight where a notice of intent to mine has been laid and withdrawn and then laid again.

Although I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands), it is difficult to say where blight begins and ends. If a notice to mine is withdrawn and then laid again in a year's time, I have some doubt whether there should be an obligation on British Coal to buy back such properties. I say that in light of the fact that houses can be undermined by coal mining and yet not suffer damage. Whether a property suffers damage depends on what sort of mining engineering goes on underground. Blight might not affect the properties being undermined. Second Reading and in Committee, we consistently sought to ensure that, when it was plain that blight extended further than the damaged property, there would be an obligation on British Coal to buy back that property if it caused hardship. The Minister said that it was not the intention—again I hope that I am not misquoting him—to regulate at this stage.

I support new clause 1, It deals with property being blighted by subsidence damage of by the possibility of such damage—something that British Coal has not recognised previously. I ask the Minister to consider the issue more closely and to decide whether we need regulations to deal with property which is patently undamaged but which is nevertheless blighted and cannot be sold because it is affected by what happens across the road or to the house next door which has been the subject of compensation. The Minister should consider introducing regulations as speedily as possible so that British Coal cannot dodge the issue but should consider whether houses are blighted and agree that owners should be fully compensated for damage.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

In Committee the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) always introduced his amendments in a constructive and thoughtful manner, and I did not dismiss them out of hand. The same is true today.

I understand the difficulties that can be caused by blight. The effect of the amendment is to define a blighted property as one that has received a section 44 reminder notice. However, the purpose of the new clause is to avoid hardship arising from blight, so there is a difference of approach. During the past two years or more, my Department has not received details of any case in which British Coal has refused action under its Brown Book provisions in the case of hardship. I cannot comment on individual cases this evening, although if the hon. Gentleman cares to write to me about the case he mentioned, I shall endeavour to have it reconsidered.

The main problem with the amendment is that it ties blight to the issuing of a section 44 notice even in cases where the householder involved has no intention of moving and regardless of whether hardship is involved. That is why the Waddilove committee, when investigating that point, concluded that a balance should be struck between the interests of home owners and the interests of British Coal. If the amendment were accepted, British Coal would be obliged either to buy or to make up the difference in value of any such property regardless of whether the person concerned needed to move.

Mr. Rowlands

The Minister is trying to knock down a case that we never made. We are trying to establish the house owner's right. The house owner would exercise that right only if he felt the need to do so. British Coal would not be compelled to purchase every property that had received a reminder notice under clause 44(4). However, the amendment would establish the right of a home owner who keeps on receiving such notices to serve a blight notice on British Coal. That is a reasonable proposition. The home owner would not do that lightly or frivolously. He would do so only because he felt the compulsion to leave his home because of the continued blighting of the property caused by continually receiving reminder notices of a continual risk of damage to the property.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

The hon. Gentleman has expanded slightly on the amendment. What he has said does not conflict with my initial description of it. The amendment would enable all owners in receipt of such a notice to compel the corporation to purchase blighted property regardless of whether the property owner or householder wanted to move or whether he was experiencing hardship.

Mr. Benn

An entirely new concept of blight has emerged from the Minister's speech—a blight on civil rights. If one owns a house and wants to sell it, one sells it. If the house is about to be undermined and one wants to sell it, one comes under a hardship test applied by somebody else. That is a blight on a person's civil or economic right to sell his property. That is offensive.

Some people whose houses are undermined might rather live in the village and get the damage put right. Why, if they want to leave for any reason—it is up to them to decide—should the fact that the property is being undermined remove their civil or economic right to have a fair price under the Bill? I hope that the Minister will consider the point when the Bill goes to another place, because the case becomes stronger the more I hear it opposed.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I am addressing myself specifically to the case made not only by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, but by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and by the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse). Incidentally, I know something about the village that the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford mentioned, because I visited a pit in Yorkshire last week at which that problem was raised with me.

The new clause enables the Secretary of State to make regulations to cover the position described by the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney and by the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford. There is a difference between blight and the more permanent damage to a property that may occur as a direct result of undermining. The essential point about the serving of a notice under clause 44 is that the mining may or may not proceed. The hon. Member for Merthy Tydfil and Rhymney will know that in some cases the notices are withdrawn.

Under the Bill, the notices will have to be regularly reviewed, at least annually. If mining proceeds, damage may or may not occur to properties. If damage occurs, the properties must be restored to their undamaged state and to the satisfaction of the householder, in accordance with other provisions in the Bill. If the property is undamaged, the blight is removed in due course because the threat of undermining is not permanent.

By its nature, a coal face is planned and progresses—or does not progress—and then, in the fullness of time, the blight is removed. Blight is not permanent, and the diminution in value of the houses which may or may not occur is likewise not permanent. That is the distinction between the blight provisions in the Bill and others that deal with permanent damage which may occur to properties.

7.45 pm
Mr. Rowlands

In the elongated process that the Minister is describing, what is permanent is that the householder will not be able to sell his property during the whole period. I chose to tie the blight provision to clause 44(4) and not to the more expansive provisions of clause 44(1) because I realised that clause 44(3) included a provision to lift the notices. Under clause 44(4), British Coal will serve notices twelvemonth after twelvemonth. Is the Minister saying that during the whole process of uncertainty about whether damage will occur, a poor householder will have to wait and that only on the ground of hardship will he be able to serve a blight notice or get British Coal to purchase his property?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

During the period of blight between the serving of a clause 44 notice and the eventual resolution of the issue, either by mining having taken place or by notice being served that it will not take place, if a householder needs to move for a variety of reasons—and we can all instance examples—British Coal will purchase the house concerned or make up the difference between the blighted and unblighted values.

Mr. Lofthouse

Surely the Minister must appreciate this point. A person may be interested in purchasing a house in, for example, Darrington. If he is told that the owner has had two orders under clause 44 saying that there may be mining subsidence and if he then sees an identical house for sale further up the street which has not had a notice served on it, which property will he buy at true market value? He will buy the property that has not received the notice and the owner of the house that has received the notice will either not be able to sell it or will have to sell it at a far lower price.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

If the householder can show, as he clearly could in the example given, that his house is less valuable, the provisions of the new clause come into play. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Mr. Howarth), the new clause enables the Secretary of State to make regulations to cover the more detailed eventualities. Hardship is a difficult concept to include in statute. There may be cases that are difficult to predict, so it is better to deal with them in regulations. At present, the practice of British Coal in purchasing properties does not extend to businesses, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood pointed out. If it was thought right to extend the provision to businesses, especially to small businesses which were used as an example, that would be done by regulation under the new clause.

Mr. George J. Buckley (Hemsworth)

We seem to have debated the new clause in relation to the definition of blight. There seems to be a contradiction between the Minister's definition and the need under the amendment for a regulation to have been submitted already. Would the Minister willingly purchase at market price a property that was either affected or likely to be affected by subsidence? He and anybody with sense would not purchase a property at the full market price if there is a likelihood of subsidence or if subsidence is already taking place. There must be an obligation on the perpetrator of any current or expected damage to compensate the owner by either making up the market price or purchasing the property.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney said. in the case that he quoted the owner could not sell the property for 12 months. I suggest that if a property will not move in a 12-month period, it is blighted and will not achieve the market price. No sane person in a mining community would buy a property that was listed to have mining operations under it.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

There is no difference between us on the definition of blight. It is obviously the case that a property which has received a notice that it may be mined under in the near future will usually be more difficult to sell than one that has not had such a notice. There is no dispute about that. However, as part of the Bill, we are considering whether and in what circumstances the British Coal Corporation should be obliged to purchase that property.

Mining blight is almost always a temporary phenomenon because in due course the mining either does or does not take place. If damage has occurred to the property, it is repaired and the property is restored to the satisfaction of the householder. So the matter is dealt with. We are left with the existing practice of British Coal to purchase properties, such as that instanced by the hon. Member for Pontefract and Castleford, which are affected by subsidence damage if failure to do so would cause hardship because for good reasons the owner of the property has to sell it during the months or years of the notice. The owner may have to move away to retire, to find a job elsewhere, or due to ill health which may necessitate moving to a smaller property. In such cases British Coal will either buy the property or make up the difference. That is the practice at present. The new clause provides for that practice to be put into statute.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Do I understand that the Minister has finished?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory


Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Does the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Mr. Rowlands) wish to press his amendment?

Mr. Rowlands

We must not take a negative decision in this House on the matter dealt with in the amendment because I hope that the common sense and logic expressed by me and so many of my hon. Friends about the need for provisions of a nature similar to that in the amendment will fall on sounder ears in another place. I hope that that will be so, and I shall therefore not press my amendment.

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